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Enjoying the Dales by bike in years gone by (David Joy)

VE Day & the story of National Parks

Friday 8 May, 2020, by Sarah Nicholson

Today (8 May) we commemorate VE Day and remember the many sacrifices made and those who made them to bring the Second World War to an end.

The story of the creation of the UK’s National Parks is directly linked to a nation looking to the future in 1945.

The then Labour government set up committees to examine long term land use, and ‘nature preservation’ became part of the post-war reconstruction effort.

Created for its stunning natural beauty and outstanding opportunities for recreation and relaxation, the Yorkshire Dales National Park is a treasured old friend, seemingly having been around forever. But its story is one of vision, determination, and – ultimately – triumph.

Wordsworth and Yellowstone 

The concept of creating National Parks can be traced back to William Wordsworth. In the 1835 edition of his ‘Guide to the Lakes’, he suggested that the Lake District should be regarded as a “sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy.”

Yellowstone was the world’s first National Park. It was created in 1872 when the US Government saw the need to protect wilderness areas from exploitation and make them available for everyone to enjoy.

Britain’s journey 

It took us a while to catch up. Britain at that time had no such wild areas. Our moors and mountains were nearly all farmed or managed in some way. However, influential individuals recognised that increased industrialisation was a threat to the beauty of our more remote countryside.

Social reformers also felt that it should be the right of all to enjoy the clean air and spiritual refreshment the countryside offered. Movements such as the Co-operative Holidays’ Association brought young factory workers on outings to the countryside. The CHA even built their own guesthouses, including one at Hebden in the Yorkshire Dales which opened in 1909.

An outdoor movement – including the National TrustRamblers Associationand Youth Hostels Association – began to find its voice. It lobbied the Government for more formal protection of our special landscapes.

Kinder mass trespass

The mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District in 1932 acted as an important catalyst to the national parks and access to the countryside campaign.

By the 1930s more and more people were seeking an escape from towns and cities and there was growing conflict with landowners. On the morning of Sunday 24 April, about 400, mainly politically-motivated, walkers exercised what they saw as their right to walk unhindered on open moorland.

Mass trespass on Kinder Scout, 1932
The mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932

They were met by a line of gamekeepers employed by local landowners and scuffles broke out. Five arrests were made and, at their trial a few months later, four young defendants received prison sentences of between two and six months. The severity of those sentences had the effect of uniting the ramblers’ cause.

It was thanks to such pre-war campaigns that there became an emphasis on making countryside available for recreation for all, not just for nature conservation.

Road to designation

The Standing Committee on National Parks was created in 1936 to develop more formal protection of our most special landscapes.

As secretary, John Dower was asked to report on how the National Park ideal might work for England and Wales.  He did this from his cottage at Kirkby Malham here in the Yorkshire Dales.

John Dower
National Park campaigner, John Dower

Born in Ilkley in 1900, the architect and town planner was a keen fly fisherman and rambler, and was once President of the Ramblers Association.

Malham Youth Hostel, which opened in 1938, was designed by John Dower and was the first purpose-built Youth Hostel in Yorkshire. He believed passionately that the countryside should be there for all to enjoy, whatever their background. The Youth Hostel movement was one of the ways that young working class people at that time could access these beautiful places. The hostel was dedicated to John’s memory in 1948.

John’s involvement in rural planning developed through his partnership with the architect and planner William Harding Thompson. He also worked on extensive surveys of south-west England for the then Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) and Somerset County Council. Over 40,000 copies of his pamphlet ‘The Case for National Parks in Great Britain’ were distributed in 1938, accompanied by a vigorous press campaign and a series of public meetings.

Speaking with local farmers, John Dower was well aware of the great contribution hill farming and local culture made to the area’s special landscape qualities. He also believed that supporting farming communities was essential to the National Park.

Hill farming
Hill farming in the Dales. Credit: Debbie Allen

John was often joined by fellow Quaker and visionary, Arthur Raistrick. Arthur would walk from his home in Linton to discuss issues such as nature protection and public rights of way, which they hoped would be covered by legislation.

The third hero of the National Park movement was Tom Stephenson, a journalist from Burnley. He campaigned for access to the countryside and long distance footpaths such as the Pennine Way.

In 1939 John Dower drafted a ‘Summary of proposed provisions for a national parks bill’, envisaging a national parks commission that would designate both national parks and nature sanctuaries and act as the planning authority within those areas.

He was appointed to a small section charged with planning post-war reconstruction and given oversight of rural policy in 1942. In 1943 John delivered a paper to the Royal Institute of British Architects arguing that the holiday use of the countryside and coast was second to none in giving physical, mental, and spiritual health and happiness to ‘the whole mass of the people’.

John Dower’s pivotal White Paper 

His White Paper published in 1945 was pivotal in establishing the principles by which National Parks were to be designated. He saw them as extensive areas of beautiful and relatively wild country for the nation’s benefit. He believed that National Parks should meet the objectives that:

  • the characteristic landscape had to be strictly preserved
  • access and facilities for public open-air enjoyment were amply provided
  • wildlife and buildings and places of architectural and historic interest were suitably protected
  • ‘established farming use’ was effectively maintained

Sadly, John Dower never saw his plans come to fruition as he died of tuberculosis in 1947. However, his report, combined with the recommendations of a committee chaired by Sir Arthur Hobhouse that 12 National Parks be established, had a huge impact.

Dales hiker Alan Watkinson)
Dales hiker. Credit: Alan Watkinson

On 16 December 1949 the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed. Introducing the Second Reading of the Bill in Parliament on 31 March 1949, minister of town and country planning Lewis Silkin described it as “a people’s charter for the open air”. 

Yorkshire Dales National Park

In 1952, a year after the creation of the first National Park (the Peak District), the National Parks Commission visited the Yorkshire Dales. The deputation included John Dower’s widow, Pauline, a passionate conservationist, and Tom Stephenson. But it was not until May 1954 that a planning inspector held a public inquiry into its proposals for a Yorkshire Dales National Park.

There were plenty of serious objectors. One town clerk in the North Riding said: “National Parks are not greatly desired.  It is a scheme of fantasies, idealists and those out of touch with life in the countryside.” Others spoke of their fears of “hordes” of trespassing visitors from the cities disturbing livestock, damaging walls, leaving gates open and dropping heaps of litter.

The inspector, however, rejected all these arguments and urged the government to confirm a designation order. The Yorkshire Dales National Park came into being in November 1954.

National Park Warden Wilf Proctoron patrol
National Park Warden Wilf Proctor on patrol, 1960s

“We welcome the Park”, wrote campaigner Arthur Raistrick on hearing the news of its formal creation.

“It offers all that we want, country for the walkers, ranging from the wildest fell tops to the pleasant riverside walks of the lower dales. It is a paradise for the naturalist and geologist, and we who live in it and know it, believe that any right minded person, whatever his country taste, can find satisfaction within its bounds.”

Picture of Sarah Nicholson

Sarah Nicholson

Sarah is our communicator in residence at the YDNPA


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